Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Being Pruned

(Note- I'm using Lent and Easter Wisdom from Thomas Merton as my Lenten devotional this year. I'll be blogging the journaling prompts most days.)

The Cross is the sign of life. It is the trellis upon which grows the Mystical Vine whose life is infinite joy and whose branches we are. If we want to share the life of that Vine, we must grow on the same trellis and must suffer the same pruning. ~Seasons of Celebration, p. 131

In what way would you consider yourself "a vine that God has pruned"?

I think the biggest "pruning" I've ever gone through is having to let go of my need for the approval of others. As I've said before doing these Lent posts, and at other times on the blog, there have been times in my vocation as a pastor (I really don't like the phrase "my ministry", but that's a subject for another time) that I've felt like I couldn't do anything right and that everyone was upset with me.

That perception wasn't entirely true, of course, more the effect of the fact that people tend to speak up more when they don't like something than when they do, but that's how it felt, and it wasn't fun.

It has been during those times that I've realized that I'm putting my eggs in the wrong basket. People's approval is very fickle. The Bible shows lots of examples of people who are totally dialed in with what God is doing, and it makes everybody upset at them!

As I recall, none of these biblical heroes enjoyed opposition and disapproval from others. Many of them wanted to, and sometimes did, run away. So while Jesus says, "blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me" (Matthew 5:11), not too many people feel blessed in that moment. I certainly don't.

That is, of course, assuming that the times when people have been upset with what I'm doing have been because I've really been doing God's will. I'm very hesitant to play the "persecution" card, and that's for God to judge, anyway.

I'm I am, indeed, a "pruned vine" in this respect, then the pruning process is ongoing, and the places where the branches have been cut away are still quite raw and vulnerable. I still like to be liked, and the real test of how I've grown in this respect will be when another season where I feel more disapproval than approval comes.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Acts of Charity

(Note- I'm using Lent and Easter Wisdom from Thomas Merton as my Lenten devotional this year. I'll be blogging the journaling prompts most days.)

The call to "do penance" is based not on the fact that penance will keep us in trim, but on the fact that "the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand". ~Seasons of Celebration, p. 130

What was your last act of "charity"? Why did you do it?

Why, that's easy, my last act of charity was, uh... hang on a second...

To quote Rick Perry, "oops"

After a minute or two of thinking I remembered that last week I was helping fill bags at Arlington's food pantry because there were several people there all at once, and our one volunteer was looking a bit overwhelmed. I sat there talking with one guy for a few minutes, hearing about his struggles, and we said a quick prayer together.

OK, not a bad act of charity, but why was I blanking for a couple minutes? It's not because I'm such a charitable guy that I just can't keep track of all the works of mercy I do, and it's certainly not because I'm so humble that I don't keep count.

I talk a good game and challenge people to make acts of mercy part of their discipleship, but when that question gets turned on me, I stumble for a few moments.

My blanking in answering that question reminds me that I'm often so busy being a pastor, I forget to be a disciple of Jesus. I'm very fortunate that my call is also my vocation, and I spend my time helping others grow in their discipleship, which I guess you could interpret as acts of charity.

Remember how I said a "quick prayer" with that guy? It was quick because I had a massive "to do" list sitting on my desk.

The unfortunate truth is that I've fallen into the trap of busyness. I'm working very hard on getting The Road up and running, preparing for my ordination interviews, plus all the normal pastoral duties I do, and I've unfortunately been neglecting my own discipleship, even though the reason I'm a pastor in the first place is because I felt a profound call at a fairly young age to devote my whole life to being a disciple of Jesus.

Lest I beat myself up too much (which, as Father Merton points out, is not the purpose of Lent), I have been fairly faithful to works of piety, but as Mr. Wesley emphasized, acts of mercy as just as essential. When the two get out of balance, our priorities and perspectives get out of whack. Say, for example, spending too much time on the nuts and bolts work of ministry while having a hard time remembering what my own last act of charity was.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Fasting from Harmful Thoughts and Speech

(Note- I'm using Lent and Easter Wisdom from Thomas Merton as my Lenten devotional this year. I'll be blogging the journaling prompts most days.)

The Christian must deny himself, whether by fasting or some other way, in order to make clear his participation in the mystery of our burial with Christ in order to rise with Him to a new life. ~Seasons of Celebration, p. 122

How can you "fast" from thoughts and speech that harm others, the community, and yourself?

I think I do a fairly good job of not giving voice to the meaner things that come across my mind around most people. That is to say, I'm very good at seeming like I'm not a judgmental person. But the truth is, of course, much more complex than the "best foot forward" one tries to present to others.

If you were to plant a listening device in my home or in my car you'd get a clearer picture of how I engage in thoughts and speech that are harmful to others, the community, and myself.

My wife, Jessica, is my closest friend, and we almost always say exactly what we think to one another. That's a good thing for the most part, because we all need people with whom we feel safe to express ourselves with no fear of retribution, and that's especially important in an intimate partnership like a marriage.

The downside of this freedom to speak my mind, however, is that I sometimes give voice to some of the uglier things that cross my mind. By allowing them to go from my brain out my mouth, I'm letting those harmful thoughts have more power than I would if I simply acknowledged that they were there and moved along.

I can be particularly mean when I think someone is being smug, judgmental, and a know-it-all. I get that way because those are the qualities I don't like about myself, and it's like looking in the mirror and seeing something I don't like. It's the speck to my log, if you will.

This will happen in the car, too. I've gotten better about giving verbal or non-verbal signs of my displeasure with other drivers now that Kate repeats every single thing I do or say, but if I'm by myself and listening to political chat on the radio, I'll just let loose when I hear a clip of a politician saying something I consider to be ridiculous.

So to answer today's question, I'm going to "fast" from harmful thoughts and speech by not giving voice to those thoughts, simply acknowledging that they're there, and moving on. I'll even try forcing myself to say a prayer for those that drive me nuts.

After all, Jesus said we should do that, so it might just be good for me.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Fear and Mercy

(Note- I'm using Lent and Easter Wisdom from Thomas Merton as my Lenten devotional this year. I'll be blogging the journaling prompts most days.)

Now one of the things we must cast out first of all is fear. Fear narrows the little entrance of our heart. It shrinks up our capacity to love. It freezes up our power to give ourselves. If we were terrified of God as an inexorable judge, we would not confidently await his mercy, or approach him trustfully in prayer. Our peace and our joy in Lent are a guarantee of grace. ~Seasons of Celebration, p. 117

How are fear and mercy factors in my relationship with God?

The concept of "fearing God"  has never really sat well with me. My parents grew up in churches were they were taught about an angry, scary God of whom one should be afraid. They made sure to raise my brother and I to know that God is first and foremost characterized by love.

I've always equated the "fear of God" more with respect and honor than with being afraid. 1 John 4 says that "perfect love drives out fear", and God's love is perfect.

In college I was involved in an evangelical campus ministry, and one of their big emphases was that we were totally unworthy of God's love, and to be very, very afraid of going to Hell. That coincided with my untreated depression getting worse, and it took a long time for me to really believe that I am worthy of God's love, because God created me in love. I tend to have some strongly negative reactions when I hear that theology being espoused, because it makes me recall a time in my own life when I let some religious group convince me that I really should be afraid of God.

The concept of God's mercy implies that we do need mercy, and many of us on the liberal end of the theological spectrum tend not to emphasize that enough, probably because we fear sounding like the "turn or burn" crowd. God's mercy doesn't just barely cover God's disappointment with our shortcomings, as some theologies imply. God's love and mercy so eclipse God's disappointment that it's barely noticeable anymore.

I heard someone point out one time how horrible it would be to have a spouse or parent who constantly reminded us that we were horrible and that we're lucky they tolerate us. That would be considered emotional abuse. God is not emotionally abusive. God is a loving parent who, yes, gets disappointed with us, but that's because God knows we can do better.

During Lent, as I reflect on all my shortcomings, I'm trying very hard to do so in light of God's infinite mercy, and to be joyful that these shortcomings don't have to define me.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Living with Illusions

(Note- I'm using Lent and Easter Wisdom from Thomas Merton as my Lenten devotional this year. I'll be blogging the journaling prompts most days.)

The acceptance of reality is always a liberation from the burden of illusion that we strive to justify by our errors and our sins. ~Seasons of Celebration, p. 116

What are the illusions in my life that I accept as reality?

Wow, if I were to be thorough, we'd go on all day and not even scratch the surface. I know I have lots of illusions about my life and the world around me that aren't true, and I'm quite certain that I don't even know what most of them are!

But the one that comes to mind first deals with my vocation as a pastor. It's an illusion called "pastoral effectiveness".

I'm in my first year at Arlington, and while I know this church and I are a very good fit for one another, I know the "honeymoon" period is still ongoing. We're still getting to know one another, and the newness of it all is exciting. That's not to say that bad things will start happening, but the reality of human relationships is that after you start getting used to someone, you start to notice more things that bug you.

Attendance and giving have generally been trending in positive directions, and people have had a lot of nice things to say about me (which I do not take for granted, because I've been in places where I couldn't do anything right in a congregation's eyes). We're starting a new worship service soon, as well as exploring the possibility of some other new ministries to our community. People's attitude about the church is generally very positive and enthusiastic.

So the illusion I'm tempted to accept as reality is that all of these good things are the direct result of me being a very effective pastor, and to imply by silence that God has only had a marginal role.

This temptation is especially strong right now because I'm interviewing for full ordination in less than two weeks, and the benchmark the Board of Ordained Ministry sets is seeing that a person has demonstrated "effective ministry".

Pastors certainly do have a lot of influence over the way things go in their congregation. Their leadership can help things go in positive or negative directions. But like the President, Bishop, or any other leader, pastors get more credit than they deserve when things go well, and more blame than they deserve when things go poorly.

So if I draw pride from the illusion that the times when things are going well are all because of me, I set myself up to be absolutely destroyed when things don't go well, because I will believe others when they place the blame squarely on my shoulders.

The truth is that, like any other relationship, the pastor/congregation relationship is a two way street. There's a lot to be said for chemistry, and all parties in the relationship have the potential to bring out the best or the worst in one another.

I believe that my time with Arlington will be judged successful in the final analysis, at least by the metrics and standards that the United Methodist Church is emphasizing right now. But I want my real goal to be judged by God as having been faithful to my task and have lived with integrity to who God has created me to be.

But none of those things will happen if I allow myself to live with the illusion that everything lives and dies on "pastoral effectiveness". I play my part, but this is God's work. The times that I forget this, I get in big trouble.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ash Wednesday Reflections

(Note- I'm using Lent and Easter Wisdom from Thomas Merton as my Lenten devotional this year. I'll be blogging the journaling prompts most days.)

"Even the darkest moments of the liturgy are filled with joy, and Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten fast, is a day of happiness, a Christian feast." ~Seasons of Celebration, p. 113

Ash Wednesday is one of my favorite liturgical holidays, but a day of happiness? Lent a season of celebration? I've never thought of them in that way. The ultimate outcome of this season: the Resurrection? Sure, that's joyful. But I've always thought of Ash Wednesday and Lent as fundamentally solemn times that make the joy of Easter that much greater by contrast.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Post # 400

When 400 posts you reach, blog as good, you will not, hmm?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

My Valentines

I get to celebrate Valentine's Day with three lovely ladies this year.

There's the dark-eyed Div-school hottie I somehow conned into marrying me,
The younger brunette with personality to spare (sitting next to her buddy, Becca),
And, although I usually like women with longer hair who can carry on an interesting conversation, a short haired girl who doesn't say much has recently stolen my heart!

I have a lot to be thankful for this year! 

Happy Valentine's Day, girls! I love you!

(for more photos and stories, check out Jessica's blog,

Monday, February 06, 2012

Jimmy Fallon at Butler!

Watching Jimmy Fallon's post-Super Bowl show last night, I was excited to see where the opening number was set!

Small continuity issue: the dorm set seemed to be in the University Apartments, but they somehow pop out of Atherton Union. But who cares? Way to represent! Go Dawgs!

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Lenten Discipline

I've been pondering lately what to take on as my discipline for Lent this year. In past years I've fasted and prayed during lunchtime, and last year I gave up alcohol, which was a healthy thing since I was coming out of a very high-stress period. It dampened March Madness just a tad though...

I like to do something different every year, picking something that will really challenge and strengthen me where I'm at in my life at that moment. I've found that my experience of God's presence is much more profound if I do that.

This defining characteristic of this particular season in my life is busyness. I'm working a lot more hours at Arlington than I did at Bethlehem (in many ways this is a good thing, which is probably the subject for another post), and this will especially be the case this Lent, as we're working toward the launch of our yet-to-be-named Alternative Worship Service at Arlington.

So while I can't give up busyness altogether for Lent, I can do something to intentionally slow down the tempo. I'll be making it my daily practice to take some time each morning (usually first thing when I get to the office) to read and meditate on the day's entry from Lent and Easter Wisdom from Thomas Merton.

This book is produced by the Merton Institute for Contemplative Living, whose retreats and programs have been a great blessing to me during some very difficult times.

The reason I'm talking about this on the blog is that I'll post my reflections each day (well, most days), and I invite you to join me. Click the link above to order the book, and if you're so inclined, share your reflections and reactions in the Comments section. We could form a virtual small group doing this together.

That's what I'll be doing. How about you? Sound off below and share what, if any, Lenten discipline you've selected and why, or why you choose not to do so, if you're comfortable sharing that. All opinions are welcome, but please be respectful of others. No judgments or condemnations here.